It’s about time to call the mulch company and get those weeds and leaves covered up, right? How about buying pine straw/needles instead? Why do I recommend pine needles over fine shredded wood mulch? I’ve never seen harm come from pine needles applied thickly, and against trunks, but I’ve seen a lot of damage from too much shredded wood mulch, improperly applied.

Finely shredded wood, piled against the trunks of woody plants causes moisture damage, and that attracts insects to move under the bark of the trunk. The next blow would be bacterial, fungal or viral diseases to follow the insects. If this practice is continual, the plants will weaken and die. If you’re going to mulch, do it responsibly. Understand how, why, and what is the best practice, before you actually do it.

Another problem with shredded wood mulch, used wrongly is inverted tree roots. In nature, there’ll be a 2”-4” layer of decaying matter, covering the ground around and under the canopy of trees. It’s nature’s mulch. It’s not applied too thick or blobbed in wet mush against trunks. The roots can still “breathe,” water moves in and out, as do nutrients. Roots are naturally encouraged to move out, for stability and food-gathering, and down, for more support and deep nutrients. This is amazing protection during extreme weather conditions.

When mulch is used improperly, and in too large a quantity, the roots become “confused” and begin to behave in an unnatural way. Instead of moving down and out, they begin to grow upward, toward the surface. Why? They’re struggling to get oxygen, maybe struggling to get out from under the wetness. Many folks feed their trees, so another problem pops up; dependance on easy pickings. These trees are doomed. There’s no stability, stamina, or resilience. Because they didn’t grow naturally.

The first inverted mature tree roots I saw were in Knoxville, many years ago, after a big windstorm. Along a boulevard were several Bradford pear trees, split and uprooted, exposing their weakness. It’s no secret that this hybrid isn’t on my happy-face list, but the conclusion is the same, no matter the cultivar or species.

I feel that if you’re going to be in charge of any living thing, it’s your responsibility to understand the correct care. If you mulch, learn about the pros and cons, and correct ways to do things, before you do them, or have them done. A landscape company wants to sell you product and labor. The more mulch they can throw down, the happier they are. I haven’t known a single company that had an arborist on staff.

Homeowners are part of the problem as well. They want the landscaped areas to look like it’s just been swept and mopped. That “beautiful, fresh” midnight mulch, mounded into gopher-holes around tree trunks, is just the ticket! It isn’t. If you want your trees and woody shrubs to live long, healthy lives, and not become a liability, observe and follow nature’s lead. If you feel you must use the fine-shredded mulch, only apply 2”-4,” and keep it pulled back from all woody stems/trunks at least 12.”

More tree facts: native trees do much better than exotics, or trees that “ain’t from around here.” They’ve adapted to current climate extremes and possible issues, where they’re native. I love volunteers, and I leave them where they sprout if I can. A volunteer, left where it came up, will always do best.

How about feeding? Nature does that just fine, if we let her. The problem with modern neighborhoods and new homes is the topsoil was scraped and hauled away, leaving undesirable soil to grow in. We dig holes that are too small, plop in a root ball with “good soil” amendments (a no-no), and expect a great outcome soon! What did we learn before the purchase and planting?

So, I don’t think any of us should be surprised when the tree declines and dies. How about that beautiful old oak you left in the yard when you built your home? There’s so much here you need to understand about that tree. If you want to know, email me. I’ll tell you why that tree was dead in 10 years or less.

We humans try to make all of life fit our plans and desires, regardless of facts. I wish it worked, but nature, and her plans were here first. We’d best find some humility, become an observer of nature, and follow.

Sherrie Ottinger, aka: “The TN Dirtgirl,” is a regenerative Earth thinker, teacher, columnist, author and speaker. Her passion is all things “dirt.” She may be reached at with comments or questions.

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